At this time of year, it is common for many of us to pick up our phones and send emails apologizing to others for the ways that we wronged them in the past year. In addition to doing personal repentance (teshuva), Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, explained that we as a people (Knesset Yisrael) must also do teshuva. How do we, as a nation, ask the nations of the world for forgiveness?
Every nation of the world has a unique debt to the world and the Jewish people are no exception. Elul is a time for us to focus on where we have fallen short not only interpersonally but also collectively as global citizens. While the Jewish people have made many extraordinary and admirable contributions to the world in the last year, we also have done wrongs for which we remain collectively accountable. The communitarian ethos in Jewish thought (areivut) makes every member of our society responsible for one another morally and spiritually.
Where have we collectively fallen short? As founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression, it has been my role to reflect on such matters throughout the year. This is some of what I’ve learned:
First, we owe an apology to all those who have suffered losses from our most recent scandals involving billions of philanthropic dollars. It has been shown that the Jewish nonprofits we all support are way behind non-Jewish non-profits in public transparency, making it possible for a Ponzi scheme to emerge from within our midst. These affinity crimes spill over to the masses.
Clearly, some Jewish-owned companies have oppressed their workers, creating a problem that is now pervasive throughout our community. We owe an apology to the Guatemalan people and to a spate of other countries whose children and spouses have been abused in American Jewish factories while producing kosher products that we blindly consumed. We also owe an apology to some of the poorest tenants of buildings owned by Jewish landlords, who have often suffered winters without heat, exorbitant rent hikes and been made the victims of gentrification.
On a global front, Israel has sometimes treated its innocent minorities or neighbors without the full dignity deserved. Additionally, only 65 years after the Holocaust, we have not done enough to try and stop the genocides in Darfur, the Congo, and other countries around the world. After years of Bible study learning of the imperative to care for the poor, we have fallen short in becoming the world leaders in poverty alleviation.
So how does Jewish tradition suggest that we do teshuva for these significant misgivings? As usual, we must first come out of our denial and accept the reality of the wrongs we have remained a bystander to or perpetrated. As a nation chosen to carry certain responsibilities, we need to recognize how we have fallen short as global leaders of justice. We must now repair our harms and missed opportunities and offer apologies. Then we must ensure that we put sustainable systems into place that can ensure that our community improves and safeguards itself from falling again in the coming year.
From the Jewish perspective, a wrongdoing to an individual is a wrongdoing against that individual, God, and the whole world, since it creates insecurity — what Buber called an offense against “the order-of-being”. At times, tragically, a wrongdoing is done that cannot be directly repaired, which requires substitute reparation. Maimonides explains that compensation should be given to the inheritors of the wronged or to the local authorities to manage (Hilkhot Teshuva). The Midrash teaches us that in such a case where we cannot locate the one that deserves our apology (gezel d’rabim) we must give back to strangers and to society at large.
Similarly, one Talmudic passage suggests that the antidote for one who has harmed another whom they can no longer locate requires that they go to a place where no one knows them, and return a valuable lost object to its owner (Sanhedrin 25a). The idea is that they must perform acts of goodness to repair themselves and others from the harm they previously caused.
This year, in addition to apologizing to others for our mistakes, we, as a Light unto the Nations, can embrace the virtue of collective teshuva by asking all humanity to forgive us for the times that our light burns others rather than inspires and heals. I have little doubt that our great nation can meet the challenge this Rosh Hashanah. We are a holy nation, not when we point fingers at all of our perpetrators, but when we cleanse ourselves to represent the ideals of our tradition and conscience.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA, Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.